paper crane on a desk with papers

I wish so many of us didn’t feel that saintliness was somehow compulsory when it comes to jealousy and our artistic careers.


 

I’m fortunate enough to live, despite not being in New York, in a city where I have access to a community of writers I can call my own. Most of this particular bunch are in an informal group — which is dubbed a number of ad hoc names, and which never seems to meet enough — that gathers for gossip and workshopping. I also exist in a few secretive online communities — again, made up of writers, where we share links to new bylines, complain about late payments, offer encouragement, and hit one another up for connections.

There’s a tenderness to these groups. There’s a competitiveness borne of ambition. It’s this combination of tenderness and pseudo-jealousy that has caused me some of the most painful, beautiful moments in my writing life — a life that seems monastic, and often is, but demands community and friendship as well. Ask the painters who spend hours alone in their studios, feet aching from standing, and then tumble into their friends’ apartments for vodka and nostalgia; if they’re of a different life phase, they might emerge from cordoned-off rooms and help make dinner for four. I can speak of devotion to my writing, and I can speak of devotion to my pack, but the devotion I’ve felt to friends who were on a similar path to mine is of another color entirely.

 

I often hear this about jealousy: it’s a healthy and useful tool that points you in the direction of what you want. If your friend’s been picked for first chair in your city’s orchestra, and your stomach sours in the same moment that you’re buying her a congratulatory dinner, the idea goes that you, too, now know that you hope to receive an accolade of that caliber.

Where the idea stops being useful is that most of us working in creative fields know what we want. We know it in a way that burns. I don’t give myself self-awareness points because I feel jealous of a friend who’s been published in Harper’s; I well know that I want to be published in Harper’s.

Another idea that circulates is that certain people find it distasteful, or even unethical, to feel jealous or competitive. They say, “I just don’t feel envious toward other writers,” or “A win for one of us is a win for all of us.” The idea is that we’re really competing against ourselves, and not one another. This is true to some degree. It’s also true that, to return to the Harper’s example, that particular magazine only has so many slots a month for tens of thousands of submissions per year, and to say such odds don’t involve an element of competition is simply wrong — especially when most high-caliber magazines and journals have a terrible gender disparity problem to begin with, making things all the more difficult for you if you’re a woman. (See: the VIDA count.)

What I want to know is how, as one friend recently put it, we can simultaneously be in a deep, confidence-demolishing rejection slump and be thrilled for our pals when we hear of their good news.

Because — at least, when we’re striving to be magnanimous — we want to be good, supportive friends; we want to be genuinely pleased for the people we love. We are (generally) not looking to be given free rein to say passive-aggressive things about other people’s success.

 

I once knew a woman who was, and is, a spectacular writer, and in our hermetic friendship I loved her like no one else. But we had our spats and our jealousies, which means something to a person like me — a person who doesn’t shout, who avoids fights — because I remember feeling turned upside-down to hear her angrily say, for example, that of course I’d won this or that because I was always going to win things, whereas she hadn’t won this and that thing, and in that week, she despised me for it.

The irony was that even though I did have a few achievements that month, she went on to achieve far, far more literary success than I ever have, which makes that old tirade seem a bit silly in hindsight. But neither of us knew that, then. We only knew that she was insecure and loved me and resented me, and that we were both ambitious and worked ourselves sick over our writing. I haven’t been friends with her in years, but in those years without her friendship I’ve heard her lauded; I’ve watched her give an award speech on YouTube with a giant screen of herself behind the podium, literally larger than life.

 

I wish so many of us didn’t feel that saintliness was somehow compulsory when it comes to jealousy and our artistic careers.

After telling a friend that I was in a snit because someone I adore is, career-wise, much further along than I am, and that I felt jealous, which then incurred a gut-punch of guilt, the friend said this: “Es, it is totally normal to feel jealous. You’re having feelings that pretty much anyone else would have. You don’t have to feel guilty for wishing you were in her place.”

This was a revelation to me: to be allowed to feel my feelings freed me up to decide what to do with them.

 

I have three stories.

When I searched for the phrase “women feeling guilty for feeling jealous,” almost every hit on the first three pages was about infertility and pregnancy. One woman wrote on a baby forum, in response to another woman who expressed jealousy toward her pregnant friends, that “I am jealous and angry and resentful and bitter and I don’t think this is going to change until we have a baby of our own on the way. I am just trying to work through these feelings the best I can to get through each hour, day and month.”

In Kathryn Chetkovich’s well-known Granta essay, “Envy,” in which she writes about the experience of being with a writer whose fame skyrockets during their relationship (and whom we now know was Jonathan Franzen), she says: “But how do you know you’re good if not by comparing yourself favourably to others (an essentially un-good activity)? And how many women are comfortable doing that? Here’s Edith Wharton: ‘If only my work were better, it would be all I need. But my kind of half-talent isn’t much use as an escape.’”

Finally: I once had a friend who, as a half-joke in our social circle of writers, constructed a leaderboard. We all received points according to various kinds of success: acquiring an agent, publishing in a top-tier magazine or journal, publishing a book, being nominated for an award for a book, winning an award for said book. I hated the leaderboard. I hated knowing that it existed. I never asked where I stood, but I knew that it must be somewhere near the bottom. Because it takes a certain kind of hubris to be a writer — who are we to say that we’re writing anything worth reading? — and the hubris must continue to exist, if we’re to continue to do what we do, and to imagine that anything we write is worth anyone else’s time. The trick is to balance that hubris with the background noise of the leaderboard, real or imagined, which doles out points, and that turns our love for what we do into something measurable.